Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First test for reform in the "New Albany"

City Hall News reported on Monday that four Senators are currently reviewing the chamber's operating rules, and the Senate may vote on new rules as early as January 18th. A number of the rules changes they are apparently considering seem like they could be important steps forward: making it easier to get bills to the floor over leadership objections, reforming the member item process and ensuring equality of resources among Senators.

Yesterday, Senator Daniel Squadron weighed in on his recommendations for rules reforms, sending this memo to his Senate colleagues. He noted, correctly, that the Senate made substantial progress reforming the rules last year, and urged the Republicans not to slide back on these. He also asks them to go further in a number of areas, including, critically, reform of the committee process. One might cynically ask whether the Democrats are in a position to ask for more reform, given that they had control of the chamber (for most of) last session, and didn't take these steps then. But Senator Squadron, on his own, took more steps than many of his colleagues in his conference.

The Brennan Center has sent its own letters to the Republican Senators, following up on a December 10, 2010 letter from a number of civic groups calling for more reform of the Senate Rules. In particular we urge the Senate to reform the committee process, so that committees serve more of a purpose than providing "lulus" (extra pay) to committee chairs and acting as a rubber stamp (or bottleneck) for leadership. This is critical if the public and rank and file members are to have more power, and if the Senate is to become the deliberative and open body many legislators say they'd like to see.

Among the changes we seek from the Senate:

  • Consolidate legislative committees and reduce the number on which individual Senators may serve
  • Require committee reports issued with any bill voted out of committee to set forth the purpose of the bill, the proposed changes to existing law, section-by-section analysis, the bill’s procedural history, committee or subcommittee votes, any individual members’ comments on the bill, and organizations which support and oppose the bill
  • Require a process for reading, debating and amending any bill before it receives a vote from the committee (absent a vote by the committee to forego that process for any particular bill)
  • Strengthen the ability of committee chairs to control the committee budget and make hiring and firing decisions

In truth, the Assembly has fallen behind the Senate in passing meaningful rules reforms in the last couple of years. We'd like to see the Assembly take on the review of the rules that the Senate seems to be doing now, and make similar changes. We link to our letters to the Senate and Assembly below.

Recommendations for Senate Rules Reforms

Recommendations for Assembly Rules Reforms

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